On Tuesday, May 5th, we honored our local heroes at University Settlement for our second annual LES Community Heroes Awards. Though each hero’s inspiration spans cultures, causes, and generations, we asked a select few to share their stories in introduction of each hero. We will be posting those speeches here.
The first presenter, Libertad Guerra, is the Chief Curator and Artistic Director of the Loisaida Center. She was asked to speak on the legacy of Chino Garcia, one of the founders of CHARAS, whose work laid the ground for a new type of institutional cultural space.
by Libertad Guerra
My first and unforgettable encounter with Chino’s work was a visit to CHARAS back in 1999, right after landing, so to speak. A bunch of us had just moved to the city and we were looking for something; looking for it, for a home, to occupy the city, to be occupied by it, to make noise and to hear it, to feel alive, to be more Puerto Rican and to be less Puerto Rican at the same time. And so we ended up at CHARAS one night. It was incredible, the color, the people, the colors of the people, the diversity, the energy, the music…back then the city was welcoming the first large contemporary wave of migrants from Mexico, and CHARAS already had some Mexican punk slam with congas and a salsa beat going on. We learned right then that it was one of the last performances at CHARAS, that Giuliani was going all Giuiliani on them, and that we had to treasure that very night for ever as if our lives depended on it, for in a way, it did.
CHARAS/ El Bohio was a spin-off of the Real Great Society -an activist group of rehabilitated Puerto Rican gang leaders co-founded by Chino Garcia, that served as focal point of community innovation, energy and growth.
In its early years CHARAS worked with futurist engineer Buckmister Fuller to adapt geodesic domes to the needs of poor communities and teach alternative methods of housing. The LES of those days was instantly recognizable by the numerous geodesic domes that it put up in vacant lots. It was science fiction for reals.
The term Loisaida was coined by Chino’s fellow activist and playwright Bimbo Rivas, and together Bimbo and Chino would promote the Loisaida concept of place and identity that communicates an inherent action, a hub of creativity, community organizing and self-help, through their street theater skits.
Chino is what we call un agricultor. Un sembrador. A cultural botanist, un Mendel Boricua. Some of his work happens for all to see, above ground ; but the most important work happens under-ground. Nurturing roots, fertilizing the ground, experimenting with new breeds and mixes, making manure bloom (see Chinos ‘green activism). Those vital forces are unstoppable, and inspiring. They fused spiritual uplift with social organization, through a creative approach to urban space in what is common to both the artist and the activist.
Vaclav Havel -leader of another underground/ the Velvet Revolution- once wrote that if you stop taking vitamin E you are simply not gonna notice for a few months, and then you are gonna die. This neighborhood is vital because of people like Chino. That’s what Chino’s work in the Loisaida neighborhood has been: an underground and an above-ground multi-vitamin that hasn’t stopped giving and helping this gritty place grow and glow.
Today our Loisaida Center, your Loisaida Center, proudly stands just a block away from what was and will always be CHARAS, on 9th street itself. Because if you close the hydrant over here, we will open it a block away. We secured a 51 year lease on our quarters to build on the good work of Chino and company for at least half a century. One of our goals is to support any effort to reopen the noble building -once mecca of arts and community service, now known for just being empty- in the spirit of Chino and CHARAS. Because in Loisaida it is always spring, tiempo de agricultores.